Fox News hosts try to discredit study that finds no benefit from unproven drug therapy for COVID-19

After touting a discredited French study to hype the drug, Fox hosts criticize "shockingly irresponsible" research

By Igor Derysh

Senior News Editor

Published April 23, 2020 10:49AM (EDT)

Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, and Donald Trump (AP Photo/Salon)
Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, and Donald Trump (AP Photo/Salon)

Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham attempted to discredit a large retrospective study, which found that more COVID-19 patients who took the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine died than those who only received standard care.

Unlike "experiments," where researchers typically study the differences between the experimental group and a control group, retrospective studies look at existing data to find trends. A retrospective study by researchers at the Columbia VA Health Care System in South Carolina, the University of South Carolina and the University of Virginia School of Medicine of 368 veterans in the Veterans Health Administration medical centers found that COVID-19 patients who took the drug died at a higher rate than those who did not.

About 28% of veterans who received hydroxychloroquine and standard care and 22% of veterans who received a combination of hydroxychloroquine and the antibiotic azithromycin died compared to only 11% of patients who received standard care alone, according to the study, which was submitted to the New England Journal of Medicine but has yet to be peer-reviewed.

Though the study looked at actual patients treated in the VA health system, Hannity and Ingraham claimed that it was bogus because it was not a "rigorous experiment" (as noted by the Associated Press). The Fox News hosts, meanwhile, first touted the drug as they cited a tiny French study later discredited by its publisher after researchers omitted patients who died or were taken to an intensive care unit from their results. After repeatedly hyping the drug for weeks, Fox News hosts had largely gone silent on hydroxychloroquine until Wednesday.

"Notice the mob and media, you know, going with this VA study," Hannity said Wednesday on his radio show. "It's even in the write-ups of it by the AP — they're acknowledging it's flawed from the get-go and not a rigorous experiment."

The Fox News host, who has repeatedly touted the drug, focused on that single study even though a panel convened by the National Institutes of Health issued guidelines this week warning doctors against using the drug as a treatment for COVID-19, especially in combination with azithromycin, which President Donald Trump has also urged.

Ingraham, who is not a doctor, went a step further, citing the same French researcher behind the earlier discredited study in an apparent attempt to debunk the latest findings.

"When we use the phrase 'scientific study' in a headline or on TV, it's meant to convey a sense of seriousness — of scientific rigor," she said Wednesday on her show. ". . . The manner in which that data is organized, examined and then reported can determine a lot about whether a study is credible or not."

Ingraham, who repeatedly touted the discredited French study, claimed that the VA study "shockingly irresponsible" and "perhaps even agenda-driven."

The Fox News host, whose tweets promoting the drug ran afoul of Twitter's misinformation policy, mockingly played clips of CNN hosts using the study to criticize Fox News and the president for promoting the unproven drug therapy as she claimed that they had "zero credibility."

"Well, the jackals at Media Matters thought they had their prey trapped. And now, journalism is such a joke that even The Washington Post and tonight the New York Times reflexively joined the pig pile. It's just pathetic," she said. "Now, I'm not a doctor. I don't play one on TV, but renowned French virologist Dr. Didier Raoult released his own study on hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin just a few weeks ago. It demonstrated 91% effectiveness in more than 1,000 patients with zero side effects. There was one outcome that was not good, but in the patients that recovered, there was zero side effects."

While Ingraham touted the research of the doctor behind the earlier discredited study, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently removed guidelines for doctors using the drug, warning that "there are no drugs or other therapeutics approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to prevent or treat COVID-19." Though there has been what Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the country, calls "anecdotal evidence" that the drug can be helpful, there have similarly been reports of patients suffering severe side effects and even death in certain situations.

Even Trump toned down his hype of the drug when asked about the study at a White House news briefing on Tuesday.

"I don't know the report," Trump said. "We're looking at it."

Other cable news networks who did not rush to promote an unproven drug therapy noted that the new findings follow a "drumbeat of studies" showing similar results.

"We're going to get large data studies, so we have to take all these studies with a grain of salt. This one was not peer-reviewed. It was not randomized. Nevertheless . . . the patients who in this study got hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin — that's the Z-Pak, the antibiotic — did worse," CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta said. "They had a 22 % death rate as compared to patients who didn't get those medications, who had an 11.4% death rate. So it doesn't look very promising, you know? This is another study among a drumbeat of studies now — again, all of them pretty small. We're still waiting for the larger studies, but if you look at France, you look at Brazil, you look at Sweden, you're hearing similar things."

MSNBC host Rachel Maddow criticized Fox News for suddenly going quiet about a drug therapy which it had so frequently hyped.

"Beginning in middle of March, hydroxychloroquine was mentioned hundreds, and hundreds and hundreds of times on the Fox News channel — particularly by its primetime hosts and by the president, from the White House podium," she said. "They just stopped bringing it up, and we don't know why it is."

Maddow said it was irresponsible to broadcast misinformation which could harm the public.

"If somebody is repeatedly misinforming the American public about important things having to do with this disease, don't broadcast that," she said. "Don't listen to people who are lying to you about this disease. Don't broadcast their comments. Certainly don't keep doing it day after day, when they've proven themselves to be lying day after day. And honestly, it doesn't matter who it is — show some responsibility, honestly."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's senior news editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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